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Reviewed by:
  • Housing Problems: Architecture and Literature in Goethe, Walpole, Freud, and Heidegger
  • Pascale LaFountain (bio)
Susan Bernstein , Housing Problems: Architecture and Literature in Goethe, Walpole, Freud, and Heidegger. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. 193 pages.

All theories of language and literature depend to some degree on tropes that serve as foundations upon which to build conceptual cities. Susan Bernstein's Housing Problems endeavors to unearth not only the trope of the house and housing in several philosophical and literary works, but also the complex relation among reader, theorist, and figural trope. The book charts a convincing [End Page 756] and original course through eighteenth- to twentieth-century literature structured by an inquiry into the role of the house, which has been marginalized from theorization. The gerund 'housing' is chosen to focus on the verb and to open the question as to the relation between architecture as design and the building as concrete object, which for Bernstein represents the relation between thinking and the empirical. The in-between status of housing is seen to destabilize the binary oppositions between history and literature, as well as between the real and theoretical house.

As that which both marks and crosses the boundary between inside and outside, housing holds a conceptual position analogous to the hinging position of the uncanny, which serves as a link between self and other. Inquiries into the uncanny have often left scholars hopelessly caught between the theoretical and the empirical. According to Samuel Weber, extended discourse about the uncanny reveals itself to be "always already performative," as the uncanny by its nature slips away from definition. Some model or motif is needed to pin the uncanny down or make it representable. Bernstein accepts the challenge Weber puts forth by theorizing the uncanny through the lens of housing. She parallels housing with her concept of the uncanny, which is marked by boundary crossings between self and other, presence and absence. Bernstein is largely interested in a "linguistic way to understand the action of the uncanny" (62) where the uncanny indicates a destabilizing "semiotic collapse between sign and referent" (15) that results when language crosses the boundary to meaning-making. This understanding of the uncanny leads Bernstein to see artistic production that "shows forth the presence of representation—not of what is represented" (68) as uncanny: "The display of representation's presence is itself the spectrality of representation associated with the uncanny" (69). Moreover, this linguistic sense of the uncanny highlights a codependence and a syncopation between the familiar and the strange, the homely and the unhomely, the inside and the outside, the referent and the sign, all of which are essential to Bernstein's literary analysis. Housing in literature, then, is uncanny in that it transgresses the boundary between subject and object when the subject and architecture influence each other's signification and it dissolves the boundary between presence and absence in that the empirical house and the absent theoretical house are always complementary.

The first chapter's comparison of Goethe's 1772 essay, "Von deutscher Baukunst" and the 1823 introduction to the same essay's reprint reveals that as Goethe's interaction with the architectural historian Sulpiz Boisserée between the first and the second essay sparks a shift in preference from three-dimensional observations to two-dimensional plans, his style moves from the experiential to the academic: "Experience itself thus becomes a kind of architectural drawing," (31) as building is fused to Bildung, edifice to edification, and bauen to Erbauung. This insight leads to a detailed reading of several passages in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre indicating that the stylization of the house of Wilhelm's uncle bears similarity to Goethe's Weimar house. Bernstein contends that this architectural building influences the cult of Bildung [End Page 757] that Goethe began to create around himself and that continued around his personality in Weimar: "Goethe's building becomes our Bildung. His creation of himself creates his public; the housing of his present prescribes its future recollection" (39). Bernstein argues that the house provides a space for the assertion of subjectivity in which the Bildung of the subject takes place.

The second and third chapters, in which Bernstein examines Walpole's Gothic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 756-759
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-23
Open Access
No
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